As a child, Suzi Davidoff used to go driving with her father.
They took road trips all throughout the American West, traveling in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and California.
And as her father motored down highways, Davidoff admired shifting landscapes—the arid deserts, the wide-open grasslands, the forested mountains.
These experiences, the El Paso artist said, were the earliest intimations of what later inspired her work.
“The landscape and the sky and the horizon, and the whole feeling of having this limitless space, were all really important to me,” Davidoff said.
“We’d be driving in the West, like from El Paso to San Diego or from El Paso to Northern Arizona, and that immediacy of the sky and the mountains always felt like it was important. Not necessarily that I was interested at that point in drawing it, or expressing it, just that it was a real central part of my being.”
Davidoff’s career as a professional artist spans three decades. Today, she primarily creates drawings, etchings, monotypes and lithographs—the latter three being printmaking techniques. Her work deals with multi-layered perspectives in the natural world: Charcoal-drawn plants within backgrounds of carefully designed cellular structures or orbital patterns; prints depicting various mosses, grasses or flowers in pressed layers of blue, black and red.
In her studio on E. Yandell Drive, Davidoff studies various botanical curiosities: fir cones from Finland; ball moss from Central Texas; devil’s claws from the Chihuahuan Desert.
The specimens offer a hint into her process, a method of interchange between her studio and the natural world—a technique that blurs the line between studying nature and making art.
Davidoff enjoys walking and hiking. As a girl, she hiked often with her father during their road trips. Nowadays, she likes walking in the arroyo near the El Paso Tennis Club; or rambling through the Davis Mountains of West Texas; or strolling through various desolate stretches of the Chihuahuan Desert; or traipsing about with a machete in exotic places like Costa Rica.
“I go on tons of walks and tons of hikes,” Davidoff said.
During these walks, she makes close observations. She keys in on the form a vine might take twisting up a tree trunk, the patterns of water in a riverbed, the ways in which stars glide across the heavens.
“In nature, what I love is that idea that when you’re walking through space, your perspective changes,” Davidoff said. “You can go from looking at a leaf that’s right in front of you, to looking up and seeing for miles. There’s that combination of perspectives that can happen just by moving your head.”
Davidoff often collects plants and samples of earth. In her studio, she studies the plants while drawing them, so the actual forms on canvas are much like portraits. With the samples of earth and clay, Davidoff gives her drawings depth and color, smudging the material directly onto the canvas.
In this way, each work carries the “memory of the walk,” Davidoff said.
“By being out there and hiking and observing, by touching and collecting this stuff…and then putting it all back together in the studio, it connects the act of walking with the act of making art,” she said. “So it all comes together, and that’s the basis of the work.”
Davidoff’s artistic interactions with nature go beyond hiking as well. Her work often features subaquatic life forms—subject matter drawn from scuba diving trips she takes with her husband around the world.
Davidoff said the ocean and the desert, though different on face value, are actually similar in a few important ways.
“When you’re looking at the surface of the ocean, there’s so much you don’t see,” she said. “It’s beautiful, but there’s a whole other world below the surface. And it’s the same thing with the desert. When you just glance out at the desert, it may look barren, or it may look like there’s not much going on, but when you look at it closely, it becomes another world.”
Over time, Davidoff said her studies of the environment, and the ways in which it’s contemplated in her work, have evolved. During graduate school at New Mexico State University, for example, her work often included immense spaces tapering off at horizon lines.
“But growing up in the desert, I had always been interested in the idea of looking at things more closely,” Davidoff said.
She began experimenting with “stripping away the giant landscape and focusing in on something closer,” while at the same time “trying to keep the energy of the landscape, but distilled into a smaller form.”
Much of nature’s beauty exists in intricate detail. So Davidoff embraced the challenge of “trying to find that vastness within the small space.”
“From an ecological standpoint, I’m interested in looking at our place in the natural world,” she said. “Where do we fit into this whole thing? How do we make this relationship work to where we’re not destroying everything, but are living sustainable lives?”
Davidoff’s current projects include an April art show in New Orleans and artwork slated for a building on the River Walk in San Antonio.
She is also compiling a book of images of her work, tentatively scheduled for April, and appropriately titled Walk.
Tom Lea Institute President Adair Margo said that action—walking, exploring and transferring the experience to artwork—has sustained a body of work that is as beautiful as it is prolific.
Margo showed Davidoff’s work in her studio for about 25 years. Before the studio closed in 2010, Margo said she sold numerous Davidoff pieces to patrons in El Paso and throughout the United States.
“I hope she knows how much pleasure she continues to bring to the people who own her work,” Margo said, “because they’re very stunning pieces.”
El Paso Artist Suzi Davidoff gathers many of the materials for her artworks from the earth itself.
During walks and hikes in places around the world, Davidoff gathers plant materials, clay and soil—items which eventually become pigments in her drawings.
One such pigment is cochineal—a vivacious vermillion dye that’s derived from a beetle found in the Chihuahuan Desert.
“Cochineal is this pigment with this incredible history,” Davidoff said.
During Spanish Colonial times, cochineal was one of Spain’s chief exports from Mexico. The bright, deep-red dye was used to color red coats, Venetian tapestries and the like, Davidoff said.
The dye is derived from the cochineal beetle, which often lives on common cacti of the Chihuahuan Desert, like prickly pear.
When she first started using it, Davidoff collected cochineal directly from the beetles on prickly pear cacti. Now she gets it from “a little place in Mexico that processes the ink.”
The dye comes from carminic acid, produced by the beetles to deter predation. Extracted from the beetles’ bodies, the carminic acid is processed to create cochineal.
As it’s used in Davidoff’s artwork, cochineal appears as bright red streaks against earth-toned backgrounds.